Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 10:08 am on 15th December 2017.

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Moved by Baroness Hamwee

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration)

My Lords, our society recognises the plight of refugees and our moral obligations, including giving practical expression to our humanitarianism. Our culture recognises the importance of family—as do most cultures. This Bill recognises both.

I first acknowledge the Government’s contribution by way of funds in the Middle East and elsewhere. Pursuing the provisions in this Bill is not to deny either the significance of that contribution or the good example set by the UK, but it is not a complete answer. Many refugees from Syria are still in the region and there is an enormous strain on the neighbouring countries: Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon—which is about the size of Wales and hosts a refugee population amounting to around 30% of its total population, and is not in fact a signatory to the refugee convention. If those countries can do so much, we should do our bit. In 2016, the UK received 3% of asylum applications made in the EU. Per head of population, the UK ranked 18th in the EU, with 0.6 applications per 1,000 people. In the same year globally, 20 people became newly displaced every minute of every day.

I know the Government take the view that the Bill seeks little that is not done already, so I will take it clause by clause. Clause 1(1) provides that a person who has refugee status or humanitarian protection may apply for permission for family members to join him—when I say “him” from time to time, I generally mean “him or her”. Indeed, that is the position in our current immigration rules, but they are rules, not primary or secondary legislation—not something Parliament can amend or reject. Rules are an executive instrument, subject to change without Parliament’s involvement.

The first three groups of people listed in Clause 1(2) can, under the current rules, be sponsored, but only by an adult. People in the other categories may be given leave—that is, leave to enter or remain in the country— by discretion. I do not think it unreasonable for a refugee to have a right to be joined by family members, and it could not be said that those listed in Clause 1(2) are distant relatives. Where there is discretion there are bound to be inconsistencies—if leave is given at all, of course—in the type of leave or length of stay granted; family members may get different lengths. There may be a residency criterion—for instance, for housing.

Some noble Lords were at a meeting last week in Parliament and heard Khalil, a very mature and tall teenager, tell them that he had reached the UK alone. His parents and siblings came later and separately and eventually they were together, albeit briefly. He said, “They’ve been told they have to go back to Birmingham because that was where my Mum was sent to live when she was an asylum seeker, and because I came as a refugee child on my own, I have to live in Essex, so we are still not together. My brothers and sisters are at school in London and my dad is working in a restaurant. If we had to move to Birmingham, then they would miss out on schooling once again and my dad would lose his job and have to find a new one, which might not be easy. The reason we’re still separated, even though we are in the same country, is because I couldn’t apply for family reunion when I came to England, and that’s the reason I’m still living on my own”.

Home Office caseworkers have guidance and must consider,

“exceptional circumstances or compassionate factors”.

The guidance tells them:

“Entry clearance or a grant of leave outside the Immigration Rules is likely to be appropriate only rarely”.

I heard, for instance, of a disabled person with a carer who is a family member who was allowed leave. “Exceptional circumstances” is a term we are used to considering in various contexts, but often these circumstances are in fact the norm in this situation. One of the people who may—I stress “may”—be given leave is an unmarried child over 18. The position of a 19 year-old daughter or son alone in a refugee camp without family support is something that would worry any of us.

At the meeting to which I referred, we also heard from Maya, a hugely impressive young Syrian. She spoke no English when she arrived but, four years on, and very fluent, she is studying aeronautical engineering. So many of the young refugees I have met have been keen to contribute to society and are model citizens. Her father took the initial journey by himself and she and her mother later joined him under the current rules, but only after several attempts to get visas from the embassy in Beirut, having travelled from northern Syria, been held up at the border and arriving late at the embassy, where they were told that, as they had missed the appointment, they could not be dealt with, so that difficult and dangerous journey had to be repeated in both directions. She said, “There was no respect at the embassy; no respect for our papers”. Dangerous journeys to embassies and consulates to make applications are a common story. Travelling through war zones is not like catching a bus at the end of the road.

Then there are the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, whose situation has particularly caught the public imagination. I do not want to dehumanise them by using the acronym UASC. Rule 319X currently applies and its existence is implicit acceptance of the importance of family, though the need for,

“serious and compelling … considerations which make exclusion of the child undesirable”, seems to go in the other direction and suggests exceptionality. However, it is not an alternative to the provision in Clause 1(3) of the Bill. Among the other requirements are that the child can and will be accommodated with a relative—usually in this situation an aunt, uncle or sibling—in accommodation “owned or occupied exclusively” by that relative, and will be maintained by that relative,

“without recourse to public funds”.

Often these criteria cannot be met by the relative. In addition, the child must hold a valid entry clearance or leave to remain on arrival—I have referred to the difficulties in getting documentation—and a substantial fee is payable.

In the case of child asylum seekers, we are told by the Government that if we were to allow them to sponsor their parents or other family, this would act as a “pull” factor and they would be sent here by family so that the family had a way in. I will leave aside whether it is consistent to argue this at the same time as arguing that what the Bill would do already applies. I will also leave aside the fact that there are enough “push” factors—but what evidence is there for this? I think that my noble friend Lady Sheehan will say a little more about this.

I can understand that, once a child has reached Europe, the UK may have more of a pull factor than some other countries—although this is not invariably so. However, that is quite different from what is called a “perverse incentive” to send a child out of his own country—and, frankly, I do not buy it. The more we learn of the situation in France, Greece and elsewhere—we recently debated in this House the situation post the Calais Jungle, including very disturbing findings by the Refugee Rights Data Project and the Human Trafficking Foundation: the clue is in that organisation’s name—the more manifest is the need for safe and legal routes to reduce opportunities for criminals to exploit and abuse. Without safe and legal routes, children are destined for abuse.

Giving the right to a child refugee to have his family join him would not be novel. The EU directive on the right to family reunification does so, although we are not a signatory, and Clause 1(3) is based on this. To use another phrase with which noble Lords will be familiar, what in the following situation is in the “best interests of the child”—a child whose father has been killed in Afghanistan and whose mother sends him away for his protection? He is a child in need of protection under the Geneva Convention and it is in his interests to be joined and cared for by his family.

Noble Lords may wonder why I have not mentioned Dublin III. We are concerned with the position post Brexit, but that is a regulation dealing with arrangements between states regarding the transfer of asylum applications. It is a related but parallel issue. I have included an exception to the rights in Clause 1 if that would be in the interests of national security, and applied this also to Clause 2, which concerns British citizens with family members who have a protection need. The problem came to prominence just before the Calais Jungle was broken up. A father was settled in the UK. His daughter was in the Jungle, but he could not meet the fees and income requirements of our family visa rules and so he, the holder of a British passport, went to live in the Jungle to look after his daughter.

Clause 3 allows for the Secretary of State to make regulations,

“to extend the definition of a family member, and … provide for requirements for evidencing family membership or dependency”.

I referred to evidencing, which is not as simple as Ministers ordered during the passage of what became the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. In debates on the Bill, Ministers said that keeping family reunion cases in scope would cost £5 million a year. I leave it to noble Lords to take their own view of that amount. Documents may not be available; they may have been left behind or may never have been provided in the country of origin. DNA testing would help; the Government used to fund it, but no longer. Indeed, the chief inspector has recommended its reinstatement. I mentioned travel to a UK embassy and back, which can be a dangerous journey in itself. Centres have been set up in France to help refugees—I had understood in conjunction with the UK, but we hear of difficulties in reaching them and of various practical problems. The last I heard was that the UK had sent over a single official to assist. I hope that that is wrong.

If everything I have mentioned is already our law, it is not working in practice. Hard cases make bad law, but bad law—or no law—makes hard cases. The EU directive on the right to family reunification states in a recital that it is,

“a necessary way of making family life possible. It helps to create sociocultural stability facilitating the integration of third country nationals in the … State, which also serves to promote economic and social cohesion”.

I agree. Families belong together. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 10:21 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on achieving this debate with her important Private Member’s Bill.

There are, I think we are aware, 65 million refugees in the world. How we handle the refugee situation is one of the greatest challenges to all of us—although the majority of them are miles away, nowhere near the United Kingdom. It is as well to remember that even with the Syrians, there are about 3 million in Turkey and about 1 million each in Jordan and Lebanon. So when people say to me, “Why are we worried about unaccompanied child refugees coming to Britain?”, I say that it is such a small number compared to those in the region itself.

I will digress from the subject of the Bill for a moment. I was in St James’s church, Piccadilly, at the invitation of the vicar two days ago. There is a wonderful installation in that lovely old church, in which clothes discarded by refugees who arrived in Lesbos hang from the ceiling. It is a powerful image indeed, showing what it means to be a refugee. One wonders what happened to all the refugees whose clothes are hanging up there in that installation.

The important thing in this is public opinion. I firmly believe that we have to keep public opinion on our side if we are to deal humanely with refugees. I still believe, certainly as regards refugee children—and refugees as a whole—that public opinion, if informed of what is going on and of the experiences that refugees have been through, is still, by and large, on our side. I have been involved quite a bit in talking about refugees, and I always say, “I must bear in mind that public opinion has to be with us, then we can be much more humane and can do better things”. On this issue in the Bill, public opinion is certainly on our side. All we have to do is to explain to the public what the position is and how individuals are affected. They will not all come round—I have had a few abusive tweets and so on—but on the whole, public opinion is supportive.

We have to bear in mind that every refugee has gone through a period of uncertainty at the least; sometimes their experiences have been terrible. I was talking to a Syrian boy some months ago who told me that his father had been killed, virtually in front of him, by a bomb, either in Aleppo or Damascus. I asked him about the rest of his family and he said that he did not know. But suppose that the rest of his family have escaped from the carnage in Syria and that his mother, and possibly his siblings, are somewhere in Greece or Turkey. Will we say that the Bill should not apply and that the family should not come to join that young boy here? Of course we cannot say that—it would be inhumane. Yet, save for exceptional circumstances, that is exactly the position—and that is what the noble Baroness’s Bill seeks to remedy.

Of course, there are other uncertainties as well. If a child reaches the age of 18, there is no assurance that they can stay in this country, which is a key issue. However, the main issue for many refugees is separation from family. The child leaves, and then he—it is more often a boy than a girl, because usually only a boy takes the risk of undertaking the terrible journey and can make it in these difficult circumstances—will possibly end up in Dunkirk, Calais or Greece, and maybe will come here. What can he do then, if he cannot be joined by his family? I cannot think of anything more painful. As for his family, do they sit it out in Greece, Turkey or Jordan and just say, “We never going to be able to join our son in Britain”, or do they make the dangerous journey themselves, subject to trafficking and other things? It is a terrible dilemma to put a family in by saying, “You can either stay in these circumstances separated from your child or you can undertake a dangerous journey”.

The Home Affairs Select Committee said this clearly:

“It seems to us perverse that children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way as an adult would be able to do. The right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees just as it does to adults”.

Surely that is the total argument as regards children. There are other aspects in the Bill, but this seems to be the main one. That is the case, and the Government need to be able to respond to the case of the Home Affairs Select Committee. We will hear arguments about pull factors. We hear such arguments every time anything is said about refugees. There are also push factors. There may be an element of a pull factor, but it is not much of one compared to the humanitarian need to do something to deal with these terrible family separations.

We are told that there might be exceptional circumstances. That is fine; if the exceptional circumstances apply often enough, maybe that would be all right. But it is still uncertain—and even if they applied, they would not give the protection that there would be if people came as of right to be united with their family member. Indeed, the Government themselves said, as the noble Baroness quoted, that exceptional circumstances in these cases must be very rare. Of course, the complexity of the situation is such that, without legal aid, it is very difficult indeed to make much progress.

That is the argument. The Dublin III provisions do not cover all cases—only a small number—and in any case they apply only when a child somewhere seeks to join their family, not when a family seeks to join a child. So there is a clear, humane and humanitarian case in favour of the Bill. I believe that if it were put to the British people, they would support it. That is why we should support the Bill.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:28 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I support the Bill and commend my noble friend Lady Hamwee on her tenacity and stamina in trying to improve the lot of refugees and asylum seekers. The Bill is just one example of the work she does in this area. It is also a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has perhaps done more than anybody in this House in this area.

My noble friend talked about moral obligations and our humanitarianism. Call me cynical—after 30 years in the police service you tend to become a bit cynical—but, for me, often in politics the number of votes a measure is likely to win or lose determines whether a Government will support it. However, with some issues, our desire for political advantage should take second place to our moral obligations and humanitarianism. This is one of them.

It is difficult to imagine the trauma of being separated from your family, your children or your parents, for example, in any circumstances. Knowing that they are still in a dangerous part of the world where they could very easily be killed or seriously injured and that the already painful separation could become permanent must be even worse. Imagine having to take the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and across Europe, eventually seeking asylum in a foreign country far from home where you may be unable to communicate very easily and where you feel hostility from a Government who express the wish to make the UK a hostile place for illegal immigrants, and then to be given little or no hope of ever seeing your family again.

Some of us, apart perhaps from the noble Lords among us who are lawyers, would hesitate to engage in any formal legal process involving a court or tribunal without legal representation, even in this country. Imagine being stranded in a foreign country where you have no knowledge of that country’s legal processes, cannot speak the language and cannot afford to employ a legal representative. What chance would any of us have of navigating complex legal processes in an attempt to be reunited with our family?

Now imagine that all those scenarios are happening at the same time: separated from your family, traumatised by the dangers which you have fled from and which your family members still face, still traumatised by the perilous journey you have undertaken, arriving in a hostile foreign country and being faced with a legal process you have no understanding of and no help in engaging with. If that were not bad enough for an adult to cope with, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as we have heard, have no recourse to bring their parents or other family members to join them unless there are exceptional circumstances. Of the 28 European Union countries, only Denmark and the United Kingdom do not allow applications for reunification from asylum-seeking-children—something that, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has just mentioned, the Home Affairs Select Committee described as “perverse”.

Talking of perversity, it is only while someone is a refugee that they are able to bring other family members to the UK without having to have a sufficiently high income to qualify to do that. If a refugee does everything this country asks of him or her and is granted British citizenship, they are then prohibited from bringing their spouse to the UK unless they reach the spousal visa income threshold. If they were to string out their asylum application, they would not have to earn a high salary to achieve that end.

This Bill addresses all those issues. It allows unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor their family members to join them; it allows former refugees the right to sponsor family member asylum seekers under the refugee reunion rules; and it reintroduces legal aid for refugee family reunion cases. What are the Government’s objections? The 2017 Conservative Party manifesto, on page 65, says that,

“solidarity is a Conservative principle, growing out of family, community and nation—all things that Conservatives believe in and work to conserve”.

If the Government truly believed in family and truly worked to conserve the family, they would support this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said, we are not talking about large numbers here. I support the Bill and I ask the whole House and the Government to support it as well.

Photo of Baroness Afshar Baroness Afshar Crossbench 10:33 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I had the great privilege and good fortune that, when I decided to return to the UK to marry my husband, who was of New Zealand extraction of British parents, I did not have to prove that I had an income. I was allowed to come here because I had spent the largest part of my life as a student in this country, and it was accepted that I could come back and live here. Therefore, when I married my husband, he knew that I did not do it for a passport.

The assumption that the dependants and families of immigrants are in need of resources is perhaps worth considering in some detail. First and foremost, I contend that it is only the brightest, the best and the most enterprising who ever decide to move, because the logistics of getting oneself from A to B, particularly if it involves a family, require good tactics, good knowledge, good diplomacy and savoir faire in dealing with all kinds of officialdom across the board.

I also suggest that, once such refugees arrive here, they have much to give. Both my brother and I decided to stay in the countries where we had studied—he in the US and I in England—so after the Iranian revolution we were both in a position to ask our families to join us. I do not remember there being any problem at the time with our requiring our families to come and join us. As I said, one of my brothers went to the US. My father decided to go to France, where he was instrumental in setting up the Faculté Internationale de Droit Comparé in Strasbourg. It made very good money for the French Government because a lot of students wanted to live there. My brother heads a research institute in the US, and my youngest brother, who also went there, heads a hedge fund. The youngest, who stayed in France, also owns his own research unit. So there is a wealth of good information that immigrants bring, even if they arrive as dependants or otherwise.

In addition, the moral economy of kin dictates to all of us that we should protect our own. Therefore, when immigrants arrive, whether they be children, close relatives or distant relatives, we see it as our duty to care for them as our own. If you go to somewhere like Bradford, you see how rewarding that is.

Not only do I think that immigrants have contributed considerably to the food industry in Britain and to the palate of the British but I suggest that they bring a whole variety of different perspectives and outlooks. In this world we need to celebrate differences. They are enriching. Different ways of doing things help us to see better and they add wider dimensions to our lives. It is beneficial to us all to celebrate differences, and I think that we can rely on the moral economy of kin to be sure that those who arrive to join their families will not be a burden on the economy for long.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 10:38 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward this short Bill. There are three reasons why I stand to support her and the Bill. The first is that, when I was growing up, I had a sense of pride in our country because I was aware that people had come as refugees, particularly during and after the Second World War. They had been welcomed into our country and, as other noble Lords have said, they contributed to it greatly. That was all positive. There was a sense that this was a welcoming country—one that people from other parts of the world could look to as a place of safety that would nourish and care for them—and that we as a people were doing something good and right by providing that kind of national home.

We have in recent years, for understandable pressures, changed the attitude. We are pulling up the drawbridge and instead of being an open place that has a reputation for being welcoming we are seen as a place that is hard to get to and, when you do arrive, you are no longer welcome. I do not advocate the kind of open door policy that Chancellor Merkel embarked upon—warmly but ill advisedly—because it has had adverse effects in all kinds of ways. However, I fear that our country is being infected by turning away from the other and into itself and losing its reputation and something of its soul. That is the first reason why I support the Bill. It is a sign, a symbol, an indication that there is a spirit in this country which is open and welcoming for those who need a place to come for safety.

The second reason is the practical experience I have had over a number of years of the splitting up of marriages because one partner was able to live here and the other could not. People have said, “Well, if they really want to live together the partner who has the right to live here should go elsewhere”. That is easily said. A recent example is that of a bright, capable young woman who has been given a contract by Penguin for a book that she has written. She is a British citizen, her parents are British citizens and she lives in this part of the world. Some years ago she married a young man but he cannot come here for a number of reasons to do with our regulations and rules. So she has gone to live with him, but every time she has gone she has fallen seriously ill and ended up in hospital. They have tried again and again but have been unable to get access for him. So she went back out again. I received an email from her a few days ago to say that she was back in hospital. She had not been in touch with me because she nearly died last week with typhoid and malaria. The truth of the human stories, of the splitting up of marriages and relationships, is serious and we need to regard it with due care.

The third reason, the one which moves me most, is the situation of the children. As the director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict I run a group to provide supervision, advice and guidance for younger people—although increasingly everyone seems younger to me—who are working for NGOs, the Foreign Office and organisations where they are experiencing situations of conflict. They are wondering how to manage and cope emotionally themselves and how to understand the dynamics of what is happening.

A member of that group for a time was a young Syrian lawyer who had spent much of her life working in the Middle East for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. When the situation arose in Lesbos and Greece the UNHCR called upon her, saying, “We need you. Can you come? We need everyone who can”. She went out to Lesbos and every couple of days I would get photographs and emails of what was happening there. After that the situation got worse. As the news got less for us, the news got worse for them. She was asked to go to Athens to work with Greek children. Why? Because there were so many refugee children now in Greece that the services could not cope with not only the incomers but with Greek children. Everything was beginning to break down in another EU country. We have a responsibility to those children as EU citizens as well as to those who come in.

Then she began to tell me about the hundreds, indeed thousands, of children who are on the road and being used and abused—inevitably so. It is almost impossible for them to find a way of surviving without ending up in the hands of either organised or disorganised crime. So when I hear people saying that we do not want to go down this road because it will only encourage people to come, I understand their concern. However, the fact is that they are already coming—they already have come—and if we do not provide the opportunity for them to live in a family circumstance, we ensure that they go into a life of crime. We are making it impossible for them to grow up in normal families of their own. As a psychiatrist I am not naive about families—they are not always perfect—but they are a lot better than the reality of the experience of these young people who are already in our country and our continent.

We should not allow ourselves to be pushed away from attending to that by the notion that in passing legislation we are opening the doors—we are not. We are setting down rules to ensure that those children who are already here are not condemned to a life of crime because it is the only way that they can survive. That is the responsibility that this Bill is trying to address, and that is why I give it my full support.

Photo of The Bishop of Carlisle The Bishop of Carlisle Bishop 10:46 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I too am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I am delighted that this debate is about families, which is an apt topic as Christmas approaches. I am not speaking of the nostalgic image of a nuclear family around a groaning table; the Christian table is plainer but more welcoming and inclusive, a table around which all are welcome.

Round the table gathers a family. Our country has for so long and so rightly emphasised the family as a—perhaps the—key building block of society. At the present time we seek urgently for social integration, a society where shared values and shared culture bind us all into an ethos of mutuality which naturally, organically, squeezes out extremisms, violence, injustices and hate.

We have found that we cannot really legislate for this, and only to a limited extent can we educate for it. We just have to build it. We have to undermine the divisive idolatry of individualism by growing networks at every level of social reality. About the most effective growing medium for this is the age-old one of kinship—that is, the family.

I have a particular interest in health policy, on which I speak for the Church of England. Time and again I see how utterly vital family support is for health, both mental and physical; how loneliness, for instance, has certain negative impacts which have been the focus of some very welcome attention during the past year.

Into this scene now comes the reality of refugees, as we have been hearing, just as the Holy Family were refugees at the first Christmas. Not the least tragic of the consequences of war, persecution and civil unrest around the world is the tearing apart of families—of children from their parents, of family groups for whom their interdependence is an essential resource as they strive for resilience in the face of dreadful events and such severe dangers.

So people arrive in this country or in Europe, or perhaps come to the attention of the UNHCR in a conflict region. A child may be adrift in a place where he or she is easy prey for traffickers. Parents may be worried sick about their child, whether under 18 or not. The exact configuration of mutual support will vary from family to family; it is not just a matter of parents and their children.

It is very apparent, and not just in the season of good will, that British people are desperately concerned for those who are driven from their homes and divided from their families, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Of course, questions about pull factors and the possibility of abuse of the system are valid, and we all understand them. But to let them drive the direction of policy is to let the exception dictate the rule and run the risk of driving desperate and vulnerable refugees into the unscrupulous hands of criminals.

Others have a greater grasp of the detail of all this than I do, but the barriers we are currently putting up to the reunion of refugee families seem to me to be disproportionate to the benefits that could come for individuals, for families and for our communities as we seek to strengthen family life—a theme, incidentally, which featured strongly in all three of the debates in your Lordships’ House yesterday on vulnerable children, poverty and the right to justice. So if stringent checks are needed, let us not use that as a means of introducing friction into the system and dissuading people from trying to do the right thing for their family. Rather, let us provide the information, the support and, let us hope, the legal aid which will help them to navigate the system.

Because every family and every situation is different, let us not draw the rules so tightly that truly deserving families are disqualified from consideration without any attention to natural justice. For example, it is often not fair that a relative who is under 18 at the time of application is disqualified because he or she reaches their 18th birthday during a long drawn-out application process. Where we rightly build into our rules discretion for their interpretation, with some flexibility to allow for special circumstances, perhaps we can train and support officials to use that discretion to make exceptions not grudgingly but with an eye first of all to fairness.

Although I began with a reference to the Christmas season, this is not a matter of ephemeral good will. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed out, it is a matter of our national identity as a hospitable nation which strongly believes in the values of family. This Bill is the natural corollary of those values and I support it most warmly.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees 10:52 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for introducing this Bill, and it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. I agree with everything he said and, indeed, with all that has already been said in support of the Bill. I have added my name to speak not through any specialist knowledge but because it is such a good cause. It is both morally right and humane to allow more refugee families to be reunited. If one needed economic arguments it could certainly be the case, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, that refugee families who have the comfort and strength of being together are much better able to look for opportunities to be part of and contribute to the country which has given them refuge. But it is humanity rather than economy which drives this Bill.

My decision to add a brief word was reinforced by having the privilege of attending the parliamentary briefing to which my noble friend Lady Hamwee has already referred. Two Syrian refugees, Maya Ghazal and Khalil Al Dabbas, shared their experiences of traumatic journeys to the United Kingdom, their determination to seek refuge and their deep desire to live as a family. It was humbling to hear two young people who had had to face terrible challenges but who had come through their ordeals to speak with clarity and conviction about measures which would help them and others like them.

As my noble friend Lord Alderdice said, we used to be an open and welcoming country to those in need of sanctuary, and we have benefited immensely from the skills and dedication of people who came to us in that way. But some of our current regulations make us less welcoming, and this Bill seeks to cut through the cost and complexity of reuniting families and to help us once again to show that we care about those fleeing persecution. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has already quoted from the Home Affairs Select Committee but I will just repeat what it said:

“The right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees just as it does to adults”.

The changes proposed in this Bill would affect only a small number of child refugees but would have an immense effect on their lives and prospects.

Others have set out further reasons why this Bill is timely and necessary. As a wealthy country, we have a duty of care to those who have little or nothing, and bringing families together is a measure we should be taking to give them hope and a brighter future. I do hope that the Government will look favourably on the measures here, appreciate the Bill’s intentions and the beneficial effect it could have on young people in great need, and will be able to add their support. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 10:55 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I agree with everything that has been said so far. I am pleased to support my noble friend’s Bill, on the basis of certain principles, the first of which is continuity and comparability with our existing EU responsibilities, or at least the essence of them; the second, reasons of humanity; and the third, rationality.

I turn first to continuity with the principles of EU law in comparable situations requiring the examination of family reunion. The free movement directive, 2004/38, which is on all our lips these days, refers to the spouse, a registered partner,

“direct descendants who are under the age of 21”, and,

“the dependent direct relatives in the ascending line”.

That is reflected in the citizens’ rights provision of the divorce agreement reached last Friday, which I hope will be endorsed by the European Council today. My noble friend referred to the Dublin regulation, known in the jargon as Dublin III and shortly to become Dublin IV. That is a different situation, of course, because it is about grouping a family for the examination of asylum application, so it is not about residence or settlement, but it is a parallel situation. That regulation puts great stress on the best interests of the child; it should be a primary consideration. It stresses that children should not be separated from family members, including brothers or sisters. Member states even have an obligation to trace family members, including siblings and other relatives, residing in the European Union in order to bring the asylum applications together.

On Tuesday this week in the other place, the Conservative Member Tim Loughton sought, with cross-party support from Tim Farron and Yvette Cooper in particular, to persuade the Government to continue, if we Brexit, the essence of the Dublin regulation which, as he said,

“allows unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to be reunited with their adult siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as their parents”.

He highlighted how for children who have lost their parents they are,

“the last vestiges of family connection. Quite often, those connections were with siblings, or uncles and aunts. For those young people, it was the only available bit of stability and continuity with their previous existence in places such as Syria”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/17; col. 250.]

The family reunification directive, which of course the UK Government did not opt into in 2003, also has a much wider definition of family reunification than that in the Immigration Rules. It is worth noting that although Ireland did not opt into the directive, it has enshrined in its own domestic law the right of unaccompanied child refugees to act as sponsors for the purposes of refugee family reunion.

The second principle is humanity. One of the guiding principles of the Dublin regulation is that when the applicant is an unaccompanied minor, the presence of a family member or relative on the territory of a member state who can take care of him or her should be a binding responsibility criterion. That is how seriously the issue of family support is taken. In assessing the best interests of the child, member states should take due account inter alia of family reunification possibilities, the minor’s well-being and social development along with safety and security, particularly where there is a risk of the minor being a victim of human trafficking. It also mentions that the views of the minor should be taken into account. A recital to the 2004 free movement directive cites the criteria of “freedom and dignity” as an inspiration to the family unity provisions. This is not just an administrative issue; the recital talks about maintaining,

“the unity of the family in a broader sense”.

My noble friend, in referring to our moral obligations and the recognition of the importance of family in our culture, placed that idea centre stage. It has become a cliché that politicians of a certain persuasion, often of the governing party, routinely invoke family values; my noble friend Lord Paddick cited the Conservative Party manifesto. It is time to apply those values.

My third principle is rationality. It makes sense on grounds of public policy. Being reunited with close family is a way to ensure the welfare and safety of child refugees, as well as improve their chances of integration and recovery. Integration promotes economic and social cohesion, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Splitting up families and relationships is costly for our society and economy, if we look at it from that level; it is also terribly costly for the people concerned, as highlighted by my noble friend Lord Alderdice. Last week, there was a Guardian article about a teenager from Afghanistan whose asylum application was initially refused because it was not believed that he was under 18 or from Afghanistan. He won his appeal, but he still has no contact with his mother or two brothers. He is trying to get to college. He could thrive much better in our society—and, given the resourcefulness of refugees, contribute to it, as noble Lords have mentioned, including the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

In 2016, the Home Office published updated guidance. However, as mentioned by my noble friend, such cases of discretion will be “rare”. Without legal aid, making an application outside the rules is very difficult due to the complex rules. Separation of families can have a devastating impact on people’s lives, their rehabilitation from experiences of trauma and their ability to integrate in and adapt to our country. As has already been mentioned, the report from the Home Affairs Committee in the other place stressed the bureaucratic difficulty of family reunion and the current sponsorship and visa system. The Government should be doing all they can to help people in these circumstances rather than hindering their chance to reach safety. The report also recommended that the Government amend Immigration Rules to allow refugee children to act as sponsors for their close family.

On the grounds of all those principles, especially the last one, leaving families divided makes no sense and is costly in social and economic terms for us. Such people will be in the best position to start a life in and contribute to the UK, as so many have already done magnificently, if they have the support of their family.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 11:03 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, in debating the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Refugee Council, which for approximately 25 years has tried to help some 1,000 unaccompanied children each year to navigate our complex processes. I pay tribute to the work, for many years, of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, at the Refugee Council. It still goes from strength to strength, as indeed does he.

I want to speak about the problem of unaccompanied children and the alleged pull factor. Until I joined the Refugee Council, I was not aware of the rather cruel anomaly whereby, unlike an adult refugee—who has the right to bring in close family members—a refugee child on his or her own has no such right to be reunited. That seems both illogical and inhumane. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said, it is certainly out of line with European practice. Such countries, which, unlike us, did not opt out and are applying the 2003 directive on family reunion, allow unaccompanied child refugees to subsequently bring in their families. As the noble Baroness said, we and the Irish opted out—or rather, did not opt in—so we are in a different position. The Irish are in a different position from us because they had the humanity to apply the system in their domestic law; it is written into Irish law. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, suggested that we should write it into our domestic law, following the example of the Irish and the rest of the European Union. It is a little shaming that we are the odd one out.

The number of people who would benefit if we corrected the anomaly is very small, but the benefit to each individual would be very large. Let me cite one example. The Refugee Council is currently trying to help a 19 year-old from Eritrea called Solomon, who came here as an unaccompanied child and was granted refugee status. He has a job, goes to college and wants to bring in his 16 year-old sister, Liwan, who is currently in a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. He has just been told that he cannot do so. He has been in a camp in the past and knows how grim the conditions are; he knows that his sister is in mortal danger. She is talking of trying her luck on the perilous illegal passage across the Sahara and Mediterranean. He fears that she will die and he blames himself for failing to persuade us to save her—but it is us who are failing these young people and failing to show the common humanity to live up to the standards of the society we like to think we are.

Following the Second Reading debate on what became the Immigration Act 2016, the noble Lord, Lord Bates—for whom I have a very high regard—wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the rest of us taking part in that debate. He asserted that permitting refugee children here to sponsor requests from their parents and siblings to join them,

“could result in children being encouraged, or even forced, to leave existing family units in their country and risk hazardous journeys to the UK in order to act as sponsors”.

That is the pull factor theory. With respect, it is totally lacking in evidential credibility or plausibility and does not reflect well on the Government. Mr Justice McCloskey, overturning in the Upper Chamber the refusal of an application by a 19 year-old—granted refugee status at 16—to bring his mother to join him, ruled that,

“there is no evidence underlying it”—

“it” being the pull factor, which is inherently implausible. It is implausible to suggest that families living a hand-to-mouth existence in the squalor of a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Jordan or Libya sit down at the dinner table and make a cold calculation, coming up with a cunning, multi-year plan to send one of their children through bandits and traffickers, across deserts and ocean, in the hope of reaching our land, navigating our system and securing a right—if the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, passes—to bring in the rest of the family. The world is not like that. That is a strange, sick, Swiftian joke, worthy of A Modest Proposal. Parents do not send the children off. The children—and adults—are driven not by a pull factor, but by a push factor. They are fleeing from intolerable conditions. They are fleeing for their lives.

If the Minister has been briefed to warn us against the perils of a pull factor relating to unaccompanied children, I really hope she will not. She should go back to the Home Office and ask her officials how often they have been to the camps and how many of these cruel parents they have spotted there, plotting to force a child to come here. She might ask her officials why their colleagues in all other EU countries apparently have not spotted these cruel, callous, Swiftian parents. Why does the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child now urge the UK to:

“Review its asylum policy in order to facilitate family reunion for unaccompanied and separated refugee children”?

Why is the whole regiment out of step—except us? Why do we know better than everybody else? Why does the pull factor apply only to this emerald isle?

The best way to convince your Lordships would be for us all to see Ai Weiwei’s striking new film “Human Flow”. Soberly, undramatically but rather movingly he captures the scale, waste, misery and human cost of the current refugee crisis and the factors that drive these people—the despair of their broken societies. Against this huge canvas of human tragedy, this Bill is a pitifully small thing, but passing it would be the right and decent thing to do. I support it.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 11:11 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I thought it rather sad that nobody from this side of the House was taking part. I will briefly give my support to the general principles of the Bill. I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, mentioned Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. If your Lordships have not read it and do not read anything else during the Christmas Recess, look it up. It will not take you long. It is the most wonderful, erudite, witty, scintillating indictment of nonsense that you will ever read.

I want to contribute to this debate for three reasons. I remember that in 1945, we had in our own small home a couple of Polish children roughly of my age—six or thereabouts—who came from a camp in Lincolnshire not very far from where they lived in Grimsby to spend the day on two or three separate occasions. My father was on the point of making an application to see whether we could adopt at least one of them when they were mercifully reunited with their family. I can still remember the joy.

When I came into the other place in 1970, I had not been there long when I was very proud to support Edward Heath’s welcoming of the Ugandan Asians. Like the Jews before the last war and those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, came with the Kindertransport, that influx enriched our society. We even have a least one of them—my noble friend Lord Popat—among our number in your Lordships’ House. I remember, as chairman of the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry, helping to welcome in Vienna those who got their visas to get out of the Soviet Union and the repressive conditions there, and to come to the West.

We are moving towards Brexit. I acknowledge it as much as I regret it, but the one thing we must not be moved towards is an isolationist position in the continent of Europe. We must remain a leading nation. We are a leading nation with a proud history of welcoming those fleeing persecution. Of course we must be careful in how we vet people in this age of terrorism and so on. But earlier this year when I was on the Home Affairs Sub-Committee of the European Union Committee—before I was sacked for voting as I did on the Article 50 Bill—a group of children came before us and gave testimony in a private session. It was deeply moving.

This country, with its proud record going back centuries—welcoming the Huguenots in the seventeenth century and so on—has a role that it must not abandon. The family unit is the building block of any society. If we can help by having some family units from those countries riven by famine, civil war and strife, we will be living up to our proud history. If this Bill helps us to do so, it deserves our full and unreserved support.

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 11:16 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lady Hamwee for bringing this Bill to your Lordships’ House. Improving the lot of asylum seekers and refugees in UK is a cause for which she has long fought. I commend her for her tenacity.

We have heard powerful arguments on all sides of the House—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his speech, which allowed me to say “all sides of the House”—of how devastating it can be for families to be separated from close family members and the desperate measures some are forced to take to escape the dreadful situation they find themselves in. As we heard from my noble friends Lady Ludford and Lord Paddick, the Government place great store on family values so I hope they will give serious consideration to the very measured asks in the Bill.

I wanted to speak in this debate for two reasons. First, one of the hardest things I had to listen to was a mother describing having to make the choice between staying in a dangerous situation with her very young children or fleeing to safety with them. The price of safety was to leave behind a young daughter, because our rules say that as an over 18 year-old she is adult and old enough to fend for herself. I have three children all in their early twenties. I utterly disagree that they have the ability to fend for themselves, even in London. The thought of a young girl on her own without the protection even of her close family in a conflict zone is a chilling one, but that is the choice parents are being asked to make.

The second reason is the example of a young Eritrean I met in the Calais camp, in the Jungle. He was on his own, having left home at the age of 15 to flee the oppressive regime there. He wanted to join his uncle in the UK, but this is against the rules. He, like many of the others in northern France, was reduced to playing refugee roulette, trying his luck every night through dangerous and illegal means instead. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, we are talking about only a very small number of children who are unaccompanied and alone in northern France and other parts of Europe. It would not take very much on our part to fulfil our own legal obligations—the Government’s own legal obligations—to bring 480 Dubs children to the UK.

These are only two stories and we have heard a few others, all moving stories of human suffering that is, quite frankly, avoidable. At very little cost to ourselves, as my noble friend Lady Ludford said, we could remedy this situation. I do not know exactly what the Minister will say in her response but in the past, all too often the Government have talked about pull factors. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has addressed that argument and showed that the evidence does not give any credence to the Government’s assertion that the easing of family reunification rules will create pull factors. Too often the Government have said in debates on these issues that those pull factors will encourage more smugglers to operate.

Frankly, the argument about pull factors is a fig leaf and there is not a single shred of evidence to support it. I have evidence for my position and I should like to hear the evidence from the Government for theirs. There is ample correlation between push factors, such as conflict, repressive, hateful regimes and famine, and it is these that force people to do the unthinkable and leave their homes, livelihoods and communities and flee with only what they can carry. Alexander Betts, head of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford wrote in a New Scientist article in September 2015:

“No existing sound research substantiates the political claim that giving people asylum in Europe stimulates more flow”.

In an email to me, Professor Ian Goldin, head of the Oxford Martin School of Global Challenges, says, “There is no credible evidence for the Government’s claim on pull factors. The simplest argument against this is that the pull factors have not changed, yet refugee numbers have increased dramatically. The pull factors that are cited for the UK, such as higher wages or attraction to the social security benefits are relatively unchanged over many years, yet refugee numbers have changed dramatically and can be shown to be directly related to the push factors, notably the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere”.

The Council of Europe’s Report of the Fact-finding Mission on the Situation of Migrants and Refugees in Calais and Grande-Synthe, France by Ambassador Tomáš Boček says:

“I was told by the authorities that there was a reluctance to improve conditions because of concerns that this would act as a pull factor, leading more and more migrants to make their way to Calais. However, it seems clear to me that the poor conditions have not acted as a deterrent so far. The current conditions raise potential issues under Articles 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights”.

The EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, published a report last July on unaccompanied migrant children which says:

“We received no evidence of families sending children as ‘anchors’ following the implementation of the Family Reunification Directive by other Member States; we were also told that in some cases unaccompanied children in the UK declined to take advantage of tracing and reunification procedures, even when these were offered. Kent County Council wrote that ‘the Red Cross is used to trace family who are still living abroad although our experience is that there is limited take up of this service from young people’. This is not surprising … many unaccompanied migrant children fear that attempts to trace family members living in their countries of origin could put those family members in danger”.

There you have it: pull factors, whether through improving humanitarian conditions in refugee camps or easing family reunion rules, will not cause people to pack up their lives in a backpack and risk an extremely hazardous journey to come to the UK. To do that they have to be pushed, and pushed hard.

I shall move on quickly to smugglers. Do the rules that currently exist keep refugees out of the clutches of ruthless people smugglers? The Government are correct in saying that smugglers are a real threat to refugees. In fact, even authorities in Europe, with all their many resources, cannot deal with the smugglers that currently operate in Europe, and vulnerable refugees fear them even more. The fact of the matter is that the fewer safe and legal routes there are to process asylum seekers, the more power the smugglers have.

The Human Trafficking Foundation’s independent inquiry in July this year, co-chaired by Fiona Mactaggart MP and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, found no evidence whatever that a safe and legal route to the UK constitutes a pull factor for traffickers targeting vulnerable unaccompanied children. In fact, it found the opposite—that the closing off of such routes feeds the trafficking and smuggling networks. The prices to get to the UK illegally go up, forcing children into situations where they are exposed to labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation or a combination of all three. A simple truth coming out of the inquiry is that instead of protecting children who have fled to Europe for safety, the Government are failing them, leaving the way open for smugglers and traffickers to exploit them.

As a number of noble Lords have said, it really comes down to a question of what kind of Britain we want to live in; an open and welcoming country for those seeking sanctuary or a closed one. It is time to stop flouting our duties to some of the most unfortunate people on the planet, step up to the mark as decent human beings and pull our weight on the international stage.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 11:26 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on her Bill, the purpose of which is to provide for leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom to be granted to the family members of refugees and to refugees who are family members of British citizens.

In her opening speech, the noble Baroness explained the provisions of the Bill, including the extension of the list of eligible family members who can be sponsored in an application for refugee status or humanitarian protection. The Bill also provides for the reinstatement of the provision of legal aid in respect of refugee family reunion cases, which can be complex and lengthy. The current position under our Immigration Rules is that individuals making an asylum application may include in that application only a spouse, civil partner, unmarried partner or children under the age of 18, with those dependants being granted leave to enter or remain in the UK for the same duration as the sponsor if the principal application is granted. Child asylum seekers in this country are not able to sponsor a parent or carer to join them.

As has been said, an objective of the Bill is to reduce the incidence of the separation of family members in the light of the significant adverse impacts this can have, and so address the issue of the vulnerability of unaccompanied children and the exploitation many experience. Eighteen months ago the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee issued a report which, among other things, called on the Government to amend the Immigration Rules to allow refugee children to act as sponsors for their close family. The committee argued, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, that it was perverse that children granted refugee status in the UK were not then allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way as an adult would be able to do, and that the right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees as it does to adults. This was not a view shared by the Government, who argued that the current family reunion policy met our international obligations and said that there was provision to grant a visa outside the rules, which could be used in respect of extended family members, including parents of children recognised as refugees here, in exceptional circumstances.

However, we are one of only two EU countries that have neither opted in to the EU directive on family reunion, which sets out that unaccompanied child refugees are entitled to be reunited with their family members, nor provided for this in their own domestic law. When she responds, can the Minister provide some information on the number of visas that have been granted outside the rules in exceptional circumstances since July 2016, when the updated guidance was published, and the number of those that were in respect of parents of children recognised as refugees here? Can she also provide information on the terms on which leave to remain has been granted outside the rules in exceptional circumstances, and the extent to which those terms differ from those that would apply in respect of individuals joining relatives in the UK within and through the applicable rules?

I hope the Government will feel able to give a supportive response to the Bill, even though that would be contrary to their approach to date. If they do not intend to be helpful—I am conscious of the way in which they failed to deliver on the spirit of the Dubs amendment—the least they can do is spell out their reasons in some detail, and the hard evidence to support those reasons, bearing in mind the devastating impact, both short-term and long-term, about which we have heard today, that family separation can have on those affected, not least on children and young people.

What impact on the net migration figure do the Government think the terms of the Bill would have? What is their hard evidence to support their conclusion? I ask that in the context that the net migration figure has fallen not inconsiderably recently following the decision to withdraw from the European Union and the hostile climate that that provoked, and in the context that the Government do not apply existing EU rules on movement of people as firmly as they could within those rules and as some other EU countries do. Indeed, apparently the Government do not even know the impact on the net migration figures of not applying those EU rules as firmly as they could. I also ask the question in the context that we have found out only recently that—to put it politely—the Government have been working under a misapprehension about the number of students who stay on in this country beyond the time for which they are permitted to do so. I also ask that question in the context that the Government have no idea of the number of people in this country illegally and focus only on making it harder for this unknown number of people to live in this country illegally.

My final question is about the Government’s estimate of the impact on the net migration figure of the Bill. The Government have had control over the size of the net migration figure for people from outside the EU since 2010 and have had no issue since then with that figure consistently being way above their claimed target of it being in the tens of thousands. This contradiction is no doubt the case because, whatever their publicly declared net migration target, the Government know only too well the benefits that immigrants have brought and continue to bring to this country.

I hope that in the light of all these factors the Government will not try to argue or imply that we do not have the capacity to take into our country the additional people, under humanitarian family reunion principles, who might come here under the provisions of the Bill, unless they are going to provide hard evidence that the figure would be way above what anyone might have anticipated. That would be totally contrary to the Government’s overall approach to net migration, which in reality has been somewhat different, as far as the overall figures are concerned, from the public impression they seek to give, for electoral purposes, that their policy is to bring that figure into the tens of thousands as a matter of priority.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 11:33 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for raising this very important issue, which we oft discuss in your Lordships’ House, and noble Lords for the many thoughtful and passionate contributions to the debate. I think it would be useful if I state up front, particularly in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and my noble friend Lord Cormack, that I totally agree that immigration—and I say this as an immigrant—has enriched the UK, particularly for refugees who have made the UK their home.

Since 2010, we have granted more than 100,000 refugees permanent residence in the UK. In the year ending September 2017, almost 9,000 children found shelter, security and safety in the UK—49,000 since 2010—and we are committed to resettling up to 3,000 vulnerable children, together with their families, from the Middle East and north Africa region, and 20,000 vulnerable refugees by 2020, around half of whom will be children. Those are the facts to date. In comparing ourselves with the EU, I think we can stand proud because in 2016 the UK resettled more refugees—adults and children—than any other EU member state, and more than a third of all resettlement to the EU was to the UK. We are a welcoming country and we remain a welcoming country.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked how many visas have been issued outside of the Immigration Rules in family reunion cases since we published the new guidance. I can give him the figures for 2015 and 2016. In 2015 we issued 21 visas outside the Immigration Rules. In 2016 we issued 49. Up to September 2017 we have issued 49. Whether there are exceptional circumstances depends very much on the facts of each case but may include, for example, an adult dependent son or daughter living in a conflict zone or a dangerous situation with no other relatives to support them. Since we published the guidance in July 2016, entry clearance officers have referred an increased number of applicants for a grant of leave outside of the rules. These have included children aged over 18 from various countries, such as Syria, Iraq and Sudan, who are not living an independent life and who applied as part of a family unit.

My noble friend Lord Cormack made the important point that we must not turn inwards. Britain has always been an outward-looking country and we will remain so on leaving the European Union. We will continue to uphold our international obligations and welcome refugees to our shores, as we have done throughout history, as my noble friend pointed out.

I have listened to concerns for those separated from family members by conflict or oppression. No one could fail to be moved by the thought of close family living in conflict zones or dangerous situations. That is why this Government strongly support the principle of family unity and we already have a comprehensive framework for family members of refugees to be reunited here. This is set out in the Immigration Rules and our family reunion policy, rather than primary legislation. This policy has seen more than 24,000 partners and children reunited with their refugee family members in the past five years. There are rules already in place for extended family of refugees in the UK to sponsor children where there are serious and compelling circumstances, and for British citizens to bring family here so that there is no need for children, in particular, to make illegal and dangerous journeys to get to the UK, as many noble Lords have acknowledged.

The noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Kerr, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Hamwee, talked about the pull factor and the Government not having evidence of that. I absolutely accept that there are push factors but it is important that we do not create further incentives for asylum seekers to choose to come here illegally rather than claim asylum in the first country that they reach. It is important to note that the push factor of civil war or persecution is the deciding factor in whether or not an individual flees their country, but we must do all that we can to support those in need of protection to claim asylum in the first safe country to avoid these dangerous secondary movements.

We know that changes in policy impact on asylum seekers’ choices with regard to those secondary movements. In 2015, Germany, for example, saw its asylum intake increase by 155%. More than 20% of people who sought asylum in Germany in 2015 were from countries in the Balkans, which thankfully have not seen conflict for more than 20 years.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about our no longer funding DNA tests for family children. There is no requirement to provide DNA evidence or any other type of evidence, because we recognise that documentary evidence may not always be available, particularly in countries where there is no functioning administrative authority. We have improved our guidance to highlight the challenges that applicants may face in this regard.

Noble Lords highlighted the fact that the family reunion rules provide only for immediate family members, but our policy caters for extended family living in precarious and dangerous circumstances. There is provision to grant visas outside the rules—I have given those figures to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser—in exceptional cases and published guidance for caseworkers makes that clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about former refugees being unable to sponsor family members under family reunion. Most refugees will complete six years’ leave to remain before they can apply for British citizenship and they can sponsor their family members at any point during those six years. But there is also provision in the family rules for British citizens with exceptional circumstances. I can write to him further about this if he wishes.

I must be clear that the rules will remain in place after our exit from the European Union. Some have sought to argue that so-called family reunification under Dublin may no longer be available post Brexit. However, Dublin does not confer immigration status simply because an individual has a family member in the UK; it is a mechanism for deciding the member state responsible for considering an asylum claim. Those transferred under Dublin may need to leave if they are found not to need protection. Our family reunion rules will continue to enable immediate family members to reunite safely with their loved ones in the UK, regardless of which country those family members are in. In addition, those recognised by UNHCR as refugees may be able to join close family members here in the UK through our mandate resettlement scheme. Individuals are referred to UK Visas and Immigration by UNHCR where resettlement to the UK is deemed appropriate. We need to ensure that existing schemes are used to full effect to benefit family members living in regions of conflict. For this, we must rely on UNHCR referring more people for resettlement under these schemes.

I can assure your Lordships that we are listening to concerns about family reunion and discussing with NGOs how we can make improvements as part of our wider asylum and resettlement strategy. Our starting point, however, is that family reunion is a matter for Immigration Rules and policy rather than primary legislation. I believe that those rules already cater for certain types of cases that noble Lords are concerned about, although I agree entirely that we need to ensure that the policy is delivered in practice.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to Immigration Rule 319X regarding unaccompanied children. I assure her that we are looking at that rule and whether improvements can be made. Home Office officials are discussing this with the NGOs, including organisations such as UNICEF.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said that our policy is perverse and out of step with the rest of Europe vis-à-vis children. Our family reunion policy meets our international obligations and allows thousands of refugees to be reunited with their immediate families. We regularly review family reunion policies in other member states and note that some are seeking to impose more stringent requirements. I have already laid out some of the figures, but it is important that our system does not encourage asylum seekers who have reached a safe country to choose to move elsewhere. We must avoid illegal migration from safe countries, which undermines our efforts to help those most in need.

The noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Dubs, talked about reinstating legal aid in family reunion cases. We are committed to providing clear guidance and application forms to support customers through the family reunion process. Again, we are working closely with key partners such as the Red Cross and UNICEF to further improve the process for considering family reunion applications, so that people understand what is expected of them and to ensure that policy works in practice. Legal aid is paid for by taxpayers and, as noble Lords will understand, resources are not limitless. It is important that it is provided for those most in need, including those who claim asylum.

Our focus remains on those who need protection and those fleeing conflict. I am of course aware of the importance to those recognised as refugees in the UK of having their family join them here to support their integration. That is why our policy allows immediate family to come here, whether they need protection in their own right or not. More importantly, this Government’s significant resettlement commitments are designed to keep families together. It is worth reflecting on the contribution that the Government have made to support those fleeing conflict and oppression. I laid out some of the figures earlier, but we have expanded our resettlement commitments to resettle over 23,000 people by 2020. In addition, we have committed £2.46 billion of humanitarian aid in response to the Syrian conflict.

In conclusion, we already have a comprehensive framework to provide safe and legal routes for family to reunite here. Instead of primary legislation, we must ensure that our existing family reunion policy is delivered in practice. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made that point right at the outset. This includes granting visas outside the rules in exceptional circumstances and using our resettlement schemes to full effect, so that we help those who need it most. I thank the noble Baroness once again and ask her to continue to work with the Government to see whether there are any other ways in which we can build on the existing family reunion policy and process, without the need for primary legislation.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration) 11:48 am, 15th December 2017

My Lords, I thank everyone who has supported the Bill and I thank the Minister not only for her response but for that last offer. I am happy to work with anyone, however much I disagree with certain aspects of what is being done.

The Government’s exposition of a positive response to refugees does not really accord with what speakers have heard and know and have told the House. No doubt that is because so many people are affected. Much reference has been made to the pull factors and in response I will adopt the term of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr: implausible. I am not clear why primary legislation is a bad thing in this situation, and with regard to the rules, I simply repeat—because I do not want to make my speech all over again—that exceptional circumstances have become normal circumstances, so you cannot apply the exceptionality factor.

The fact remains that we have a situation that is of huge concern to all noble Lords regarding separated families, and the comprehensive framework, which was referred to by the Minister, is not doing the job we all want see. The threads which have run throughout this debate include how we wish our country in 2017 to be and to be perceived, including as one that expresses its humanity and the value of family, as well as practical reasons, including those which are not actually altruistic about the enrichment of our society. Reference was made at the start of the debate to informed public opinion. Politicians need to take the lead in informing public opinion and in debating with the public. I hope that noble Lords will agree to give this Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.